AUSTIN (KXAN) — Where is one place you don’t want to be in Austin? Sitting in bumper-to-bumper to traffic in downtown during rush hour. The annoyance level is through the roof. The stress level is even higher if you actually have somewhere to be at a certain time.
Tension rises when drivers look up and see cars pulling out and getting stuck in the intersection, which stops other drivers from getting through. And, buses do it, too: big, Capital Metro buses stop in the middle of the intersection — blocking at least three lanes of traffic.
KXAN viewer Michael Coffey said it happens all the time on his commute home. He sent a photo of a Capital Metro bus driver “blocking the box” at Congress Avenue and West Cesar Chavez around 4:50 p.m. on a Tuesday. We wondered how often this happens, and how many bus drivers have been ticketed for it.
We camped out at the same intersection around the same time, and within minutes we witnessed the same thing. Three lanes of traffic had a green light, but couldn’t go anywhere due to the 35-foot long bus parked in their path.
We moved to a different busy intersection on a different day: East Cesar Chavez and South First Street, right in front of city hall. There happened to be several Austin police officers wearing safety vests helping keep the intersection clear. Sure enough, we saw buses blocking the box again.
Back in 2015, the city of Austin ramped up efforts to enforce the “block the box” state law, which carries a fine of up to $500.
Hundreds of tickets were written weekly, discouraging drivers from blocking intersections.
But, what about bus drivers?
Cap Metro said it only has record of one bus driver getting ticketed for it. Public Information Officer Mariette Hummel said that driver had to pay his own $250 fine, plus another $71 in administrative fees. He is still a bus driver, and did not receive disciplinary action.
Hummel said she does not know if more Cap Metro drivers have been ticketed for blocking an intersection because driving records are kept in individual driver files, and the public transit authority does not have a way to search for the data. Austin police also said it has no way to single out bus driver citations versus regular drivers. Red light camera tickets are the only violations APD reports directly to Cap Metro.
Other drivers are noticing buses breaking the law, too, and bringing it to Cap Metro’s attention. The public transit authority checked its records and said it’s fielded at least 35 complaints regarding a bus blocking the box.
Capital Metro’s acting chief operating officer Dottie Watkins said blocking the box is a little trickier to manage with how congested it is downtown.
A bus driver may misjudge how much space they have in front of them before the light turns red, for example.
“This would be an excellent opportunity for re-training that employee,” Watkins, a former bus driver herself, said when looking at video of a bus driver blocking the box.
That’s what she said happened when we showed her our video clip of a Cap Metro bus blocking the box.
As for regular drivers, court data shows that Austin Police cited about 100 people in 2018 for blocking intersections. That’s a huge difference from the 1,100 drivers cited in 2015 during the first three weeks of enforcement.
“Call loads are much higher, so we don’t have the availability for officers to go out there and strictly work those kind of initiatives,” APD Detective Patrick Oborski said.
Det. Oborski said he did not realize buses were blocking the box before we showed him the video, which he called a ‘major traffic hazard.’
“I think we definitely need to have a conversation with Capital Metro,” Detective Oborski said.
He also said drivers can call into 311 and report when they see it happening. Capital Metro also encourages drivers to call in any complaints to its customer service line. The number is 512-474-1200 or you can email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Watkins said Cap Metro will continue to train drivers on defensive driving, which include not blocking the box.
Ben Friberg and Phill Robb contributed to this report.